Youth unemployment: what can we learn from Europe?

Germany and the Netherlands provide lessons, but we can't copy their approach wholesale.

Speaking at the launch of The Work Foundation’s Missing Million programme, David Miliband laid part of the blame for the rise in youth unemployment on the "chaotic landscape" faced by young people not bound for university. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Strong vocational systems in places like the Netherlands and Germany have served to keep youth unemployment consistently low despite the recession.

We all know that youth unemployment is a big problem – despite a slight recent fall there are still over one million young people out of work. The recession is only one part of the picture. Youth unemployment has been rising since 2003, which many will find surprising given these were the "good times" characterised by a sustained period of economic growth. The youth unemployment problem therefore cannot be explained by economic difficulties alone – its nature is both cyclical and structural. Unfortunately this means that the issue will remain with us even beyond today’s frosty economic climate.

The UK is certainly not alone in crisis – there are other European countries with much higher rates of unemployment. For instance in Spain, youth unemployment is staggeringly high, with half of young people unemployed. The UK itself currently sits around the European average, however in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands the rate has remained consistently low, with fewer than one in ten young people seeking work. Part of the explanation for the comparatively poor performance of the UK must be economic, but it is clear from longer trend data that this is only part of the answer.

Speaking at the event, Professor David Bell quoted Klaus Zimmerman who emphasised the strength of the German apprenticeship system, which he compared to a:

Gigantic microeconomic management exercise that involves all the relevant stakeholders in society.

In the UK, as the government recognises, the quality of apprenticeships is mixed. Currently, the success rate on apprenticeships is lower than other types of vocational skills training – although this is an improvement from a decade ago. Apprenticeships in the UK are much shorter than in some other countries, lasting between one and two years, compared with a norm of three years or longer in Germany and Austria. Another central difference with other countries is employer attitudes. Just 8 per cent of UK employers offer them, compared with a third in Australia – among the lowest in the developed world.

The rebuilding of apprenticeship began under the previous Labour Government and is being grown further by the Coalition. But we begin from a very low base, and it is not just the quantity and quality of the system that it is questionable - the lack of clear pathways into further education or work for those not attending university is compounding the problem, which David Miliband compared to a “field of unmarked landmines”. Part of the strength of the German system, Zimmerman argues, is the focus on detail and the co-ordination of all elements of a young person’s journey.

It is this that makes the difference, not, as Zimmerman said:

Lofty white papers or grandiose policy announcements issued in the national capital.

In Germany the system is built from the bottom-up, involving the whole community. While we have to recognise that we can’t entirely replicate their approach in the UK, we are lacking neither the organisations committed to the problem nor the political will to act. Ultimately, the focus has to be on the experience of each young person, and it is paramount that we ensure a continuity of support between school and the world of work – it is here that we can have the greatest impact.

German apprentices at work in Seimens. Photograph: Getty Images

Katherine Jones is a research assistant  for the The Work Foundation’s Socio-Economic team.

As part of their Bottom Ten Million programme she predominantly been working on a project on inequality in cities and investigating the changing characteristics of NEETs.

She studied politics and economics at the University of Manchester and hold an MSc in Social Policy Research from the London School of Economics.

Lizzie Crowley is leading The Work Foundation's work on Innovation in Cities for the Cities 2020 programme. She will also be running one of the Bottom Ten Million research strands, looking at the clustering of highly skilled workers in particular cities and regions and what this means for those with low skill levels.

Lizzie graduated in Sociology and has a master's degree in Social Science Research Methods, both from the University of Glasgow.


Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.